Wade Holland was standing near the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues on Wednesday morning, as multiple pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists drove through as light rain fell to the ground.
The intersection is the third “protected intersection” in Montgomery County. Holland, the county’s Vision Zero director, described this as a crossway where bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists each have dedicated paths to travel. There are bike lights and pedestrian lights to ensure that everyone can get through safely, Holland said.
Even with the conditions on Wednesday, it was active, with dozens of people using it in a 10-to 15-minute period.
Despite this physical improvement, Holland and others throughout the county said on Wednesday that more work remains when it comes to road and pedestrian safety.
“We know we would like to go faster and get every roadway done, that we need to get done. It takes time,” Holland said. “This is kind of to show one project that will be many along the way in coming years.”
Holland joined others to unveil the fiscal year 2022 Vision Zero report, which highlights the county’s work on pedestrian and bicycle safety. Vision Zero is the county’s ongoing effort to reduce and eventually eliminate serious and fatal crashes among pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists by 2030.
According to the report, there was a 15% decrease in serious and fatal crashes in fiscal year 2022 (July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022) versus the average from fiscal years 2015 to 2019. There were 33 fatal collisions in 2021, 39 in 2020, and 32 in 2019. This year, more than 40 people have died in fatal collisions.
An analysis in the report showed that fatal crashes in 2021 were spread through the county, ranging from the northeastern region of Damascus to the southern urban cores of Bethesda and Silver Spring. Similar trends have occurred in recent years, prior Vision Zero reports show.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D), County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large) , Council Vice President Evan Glass (D-At-large), Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones and Chris Conklin, the county’s Department of Transportation director, all said that much more work remains to be done to make roadways safer, given that there have been 47 deaths on roadways in the county in 2022.
There are many potential solutions officials highlighted, but Elrich did tell those gathered he has “no allergy to speed cameras or red-light cameras,” calling them an essential part of the solution.
Capt. Brian Dillman, director of the traffic operations division for county police, agreed that camera technology is an invaluable tool in helping to crack down on speeding and other issues with drivers. But he said that increasing penalties for speeding tickets or similar offenses from video cameras could be beneficial to the problem, because it would deter dangerous driving.
Motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, law enforcement and the state’s attorney’s office all “have a piece of the pie” when it comes to solving the problem, Dillman said. But there are serious issues that need to be rectified at the state level, he said — some drivers who have had past DUI charges or similar offenses are on a probationary period and can get into fatal collisions while waiting for a court hearing.
There’s also a problem, Dillman said, with a loophole in Leotta’s Law, a state law that requires an interlock system for drivers. The interlock system requires a driver to blow into a breathalyzer system and prevents them from driving if they are above the legal blood alcohol limit.
Dillman said that people on a probationary period don’t have to install one until they have a court hearing with a judge. Some recent fatal crashes have involved this scenario, he added.
Education with drivers is also key, he said.
“We still have to have that interaction with the police, those contacts with the drivers,” Dillman said. “Because that has a bigger impact on deterring their behavior. Because when you have that interaction, and you are issued a citation, then there’s points assessed [on car insurance] with that, and that seems to curb people’s behavior.”
Some attendees of Wednesday’s news briefing said that while the county and its partners has made progress, they agreed that more work is needed.
Richard Hoye, a member and former vice president of the Action Committee for Transit, said that one of the solutions — which Elrich mentioned in his comments to attendees — is to square corners at intersections to make it so that drivers slow down when making turns at intersections. That’s a cheaper solution compared to other infrastructure projects, he said.
Hoye, a Bethesda resident, added that everyone involved in the issue needs to change how they view it, and coordinate how they approach the issue, which he views as a public health and urban design one.
“We must increase the cooperative nature, [and] the social nature, of our streets, through design as well as enforcement,” Hoye said.
“People are pack animals, and social animals, and our instincts are more compassionate … we’re creating the environment where people will resolve conflicts in not only a safe way, but a rewarding way,” he added.
Another resident concerned about vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian safety is John Seng from Olney. He recently formed the Maryland Coalition for Roadway Safety.
Seng was frank in assessing the problem — police officers need to have more freedom to stop drivers they view as aggressive, and drivers need to realize that even though bicyclists and pedestrians can make mistakes, only vehicles have the ability to cause a fatal accident.
“It’s the vehicle, the driver, that does the killing,” Seng said.